My first exposure to RuPaul’s Drag Race occurred in a cramped New York gay bar where an episode happened to be playing in the background. Despite knowing nothing about the show, I couldn’t look away, as I was transported for an hour from the reality that had recently elected Donald Trump as president. But while I was transfixed by the immaculately styled wigs, glamorous outfits, and poise of the queens, I had no idea why Farrah Moan thought Valentina didn’t love her, or why Charlie Hides offered so many excuses for why she couldn’t make sushi. I only knew I wanted to find out.
Drag Race debuted in February 2009, making it one of the first major works of art of the Obama era. At the time of its premiere, drag was decidedly not mainstream, and the first season’s production values could be rough. 17 seasons, 153 contestants, and 13 Emmys later, the show and its spinoff RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars have transformed into a glitzy cultural juggernaut in which queens show their stuff and are eliminated episode by episode until the finale. Along the way, viewers get to know them both personally and professionally, learning about their lives while being wowed by their talents. These include acting, makeup, fashion design and construction, singing, comedy, dancing, celebrity impersonation, lip syncing, and writing—all while remaining true to that queen’s distinct brand. Combine this range of skills with dynamic personalities, subversive art, and a competitive environment, and you have a recipe for riveting entertainment.
Every season of Drag Race features performers who radiate the four traits RuPaul most values in queens: charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. (Consider the acronym formed by these traits for a sense of the show’s humor.) While there’s no bad place to start watching, you can’t go wrong with Season 6, Episode 2, “RuPaul’s Big Opening: Part Two.” Season 6, unlike most other Drag Race seasons, split its premiere into two parts, allowing more time to introduce the cast. Seven different queens compete in each episode, with two queens winning and two queens sashaying away before the groups merge. Part of the fun of any Drag Race season premiere is that the viewers aren’t the only people trying to get to know the queens: They’re trying to get to know each other, too. The group of queens we meet in “Part Two” ranges from genderfuck club kid Milk to Aussie expat singer Courtney Act to insult comic Bianca del Rio. The variety among these queens makes it a delight to watch them, both as individuals and as they interact with one another.
The episode’s first challenge, a photo shoot where the queens pose in a boudoir pillow fight with the Pit Crew—muscular, scantily clad men who regularly appear on the show—is at once very silly and a genuine test of the queens’ skill sets. How well can they command the camera’s focus when, as Joslyn Fox puts it, there are feathers flying everywhere? How do they adapt their drag characters to shine in this scenario? It comes easily for some, like Courtney, who expertly tosses her wig and declares, “Courtney knows how to do sexy. She’s a natural.” It’s harder for clown-inspired Bianca, who nonetheless rises to the challenge. The photo shoot is fun and ridiculous, but most importantly, it catches the queens off guard and gives the viewer a glimpse of their mindsets.
The design challenge that follows is a classic start to a Drag Race season: Each queen receives a different party-themed box full of fabric and props, from which they must create a full-fledged look to wear on the runway. As with the photo shoot, the queens’ ability to apply both their skill and style is key—and demonstrates how the show engages with contestants on a more personal level, while still remaining plenty competitive. (Milk’s plan to incorporate facial hair into her toga party–inspired look provokes shocked reactions.) One of the defining aspects of Drag Race is that its contestants are given equal screen time as performers and as people, documenting their transformations and giving viewers insight into the process and personalities behind the art.
Because drag is a subversive, controversial, and inherently queer art form, every Drag Race episode is a profound reminder that the personal is political. In many ways, my first impression of Drag Race has stayed much the same: It really can feel like an alternate universe that centers, loves, and celebrates LGBTQ people and the art they make. Drag Race is by no means a utopia—the show has a thorny history when it comes to trans representation and sensitivity—but it is still a massive platform for queer excellence and representation through the queens it showcases, and “RuPaul’s Big Opening: Part Two” is a perfect entry point. I can’t think of a better, more necessary time to enter that alternate universe and embrace the art, joy, and resilience that Drag Race celebrates.